The Tyranny of the Science Fair
I get what the Science Fair is supposed to be about. I understand how it’s meant to ignite a spark of curiosity in students, and propel them on their way toward productive careers. What I don’t get is how anyone expects it to do any of that when most of the projects are one step up from baking soda volcanos.
Sure, we all want to believe our kids are going to grow up to be little Tony Starks or whatever - and maybe they will - but I’m pretty sure it won’t be because they made a papier-mâché solar system in the sixth grade.
No good comes from the Science Fair - not for normal families, anyway. Yeah, there are always stories about how some brilliant seventh grader somehow developed a new testing method for deadly diseases all by himself*, but those are pretty rare. For most parents and kids, the Science Fair is the great equalizer: EVERYONE SUFFERS.
*The fact that both of this kids’ parents are usually microbiologists is, I’m sure, completely coincidental.
Don’t believe me? That’s fine. You probably don’t have kids, and therefore still know everything there is to know about parenting. Still, if you’ll give me just a few minutes, I’ll convince you. WITH SCIENCE.
I will do this using the five steps of the Scientific Method, so don’t come at me with your anecdotes, bro. I have hard data, and I'm not afraid to use it.
1. Make an Observation
Before you begin any science project, you must first observe your surroundings, and study the subject of your potential experiment with great interest. I’m a stepdad, and my subject here is my stepson. I observe him all the time, because he’s 11 years old and curious about the world. This is a dangerous combination at best, and a recipe for unexpected explosions at worst. Sometimes, it’s both.
From my observations, I know that, while my kid is super smart and eager to learn, he’s also pretty awful about remembering anything his teachers tell him at school, and he’s even worse at writing things down. He also likes the idea of doing schoolwork a lot more than the actual doing of schoolwork.
Taking these observations into account leads me to the next step in the Scientific Method.
2. Form a Question
This one’s pretty simple, and was provided (read: forced) upon me by his school making participation mandatory: What will happen if my kid enters the Science Fair?
3. Form a Hypothesis
This is the part where you make an educated guess about how things will turn out. Using what I know of my own kid, along with my personal experiences with the Science Fair when I was in school, I am able to form the following hypothesis:
THERE WILL BE WAILING AND THE GNASHING OF TEETH. LAMENTATIONS. MISERY. REGRET.
For anyone who hasn’t had a kid enter the Science Fair yet, you might be thinking that this is hyperbole, that I’m exaggerating for effect. I assure you, I am not.
And I’ll prove it to you now, with the fourth step.
4.) Conduct an Experiment
All I have to do for my Science Project here is to observe and document what happens with my kid’s Science Project, which he was pretty excited about - back at the start of the year, when it was still a long way off. Then, about a week before Thanksgiving, we found out that his project would be due on December 15th. Panic ensued.
He started off wanting to phone in a project about what material makes the best paper airplane - but I, always the idiot stepdad - convinced him that he could do better.
This was a Mistake.
He bounced around various project ideas, from the overly ambitious to the ridiculously complex, before I eventually talked him back down to the realm of reason.*
*It did not actually happen this way. I’m pretty sure it was my wife who talked us both down off the ledge of ambition, but mostly me. I get a little too excited sometimes.
He eventually settled on asking the question, “What lubricant, if any, works best on Fidget Spinners?”
This seemed like a reasonable project to work on in the time allotted, with the added bonus being that we already had most of the supplies he’d need for his experiment, thanks to the great Fidget Spinner Craze of Spring 2017. You remember it.
After finally choosing his project, he was off to work. Except that he wasn’t. But more on that in the last step of the Scientific Method.
5.) Analyze the Data and Draw a Conclusion
Careful observation of all the work he wasn’t doing led me to draw the following conclusion: I was going to have to Get Involved.
It started out small, with gentle prodding reminders that he really should get started, and that waiting until the last minute would be a bad idea. Some part of me knew he wasn’t ever going to seriously work on the project without my direct intervention, but I didn’t want to believe that.
Surely, my kid would be the exception to the rule, right? Surely, my kid would jump into the Science Fair with eager enthusiasm, right?
Still, I kept hoping he'd take the initiave, so I gently prodded. Like an idiot.
Conclusion: Denying that there was problem had no effect
As I watched him not take things seriously, I decided to escalate my gentle prodding to aggressive demanding. Ultimatums were made and ignored. Angry threats of groundings were involved. They had no effect. Every time he actually started working on the project, he just as quickly stopped working on it because Minecraft, toys, dogs, Nintendo.
Conclusion: Angrily threatening punishment had no effect
I eventually decided that bribery might have a shot. I told him we’d have extra time to play or do whatever he wanted if he’d just get his project done. It had no effect. I told him he could have pizza for dinner every night last week, if he’d just get his outline done. No effect.
Conclusion: Bargaining was completely ineffective
I was close to giving up, at this point. We were going into his last weekend to work on the project before it was due, and he still hadn’t written more than a paragraph on his subject - and that was mostly lifted from some random YouTube video he'd watched.
In fact, I did kind of give up. I told him that, if he wanted to get a zero on the project and fail Science, that was up to him. I told him about the kid I knew back when I was in sixth grade who hadn’t taken the Science Fair seriously, and ended up failing out of school because of it, so now he’s homeless and spends his time busking on a street corner with a broken ukulele and eating from garbage cans.
I don't think he believed me.
Conclusion: Whatever. I guess my kid isn’t Tony Stark. I thought he could be, but I was wrong. Everything sucks, and I’ve failed as a parent.
Eventually, my wife got involved. This is when everything changed.
In one day - ONE. SINGLE. DAY. - she was somehow able to motivate him in ways that had escaped me completely, and his project went from hardly started to mostly finished in a matter of hours.
In hindsight, I probably should've asked for her help sooner.
Conclusion: Moms make better task masters than dads, which is probably sexist or something, but I don’t care anymore. I’ve accepted it as an inescapable truth of the universe. Sue me.
Looking back over my data, it’s clear that the Science Fair produces the same emotions as the five stages of grief.
DENIAL: My kid is exceptional, so he’ll be the exception to the rule.
ANGER: WHY ISN’T MY KID BEHAVING LIKE I THOUGHT HE WOULD?!
BARGAINING: Please? Let’s not get Mama involved. We’ll both be in trouble.
DEPRESSION: I have failed as a parent.
ACCEPTANCE: I give up. You win, Science Fair. You win.
No good comes from the Science Fair. I don’t care how many pictures our kids glue onto their little trifold project boards, or how detailed their research papers are, or how much we pretend they learned from the experience, the truth is that the only thing they’ll remember from the ordeal is The Suffering.
The tyranny of the Science Fair is that it hides its sinister nature beneath a charming cloak of cheerful baking soda volcanos and harmless experiments involving putting things into glasses of Coca-Cola for weeks on end. The projects end up being cute and making us proud as parents, but we all know the real truth hiding behind the blue ribbon winner taking home 1st prize: It is a trophy of tears.
The hidden agenda of the Science Fair is that, while we think our kids are the ones doing the experiments, we are all, parents and kids alike, just subjects in some kind of grand, scientific conspiracy where we’re the guinea pigs.
How much suffering can one school project inflict on a family, and how much misery can they endure?
Now that I think about it, that would make an excellent project for next year's Science Fair...